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Here’s the Church, Here’s the Steeple

Spotlight reveals how Boston Globe reporters broke the story of child abuse in the Catholic church
Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight
Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

Spotlight is a brilliant piece of meta-storytelling: a film that tells a story about how another story was found. In early 2002, the The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team published a story uncovering years of hidden abuse by Catholic priests. That piece is out there, online, for anyone to read. But what director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) and his co-writer Josh Singer tease out, in a movie that plays like a quiet, tense thriller, is how that story came to be — and how it took decades to come to light. 

Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, a restrained, deliberate, quietly fierce newspaperman who leads the Spotlight team. When new Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber, bookish under a beard) suggests, with a gentle finality, that Spotlight look into a mostly-ignored story about a priest charged with abuse, Robby is initially resistant to being told what to do, least of all by the new guy, the out-of-towner. But his team — Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) — is good at its job, and when they start digging, what they find is astonishing and vital.

McCarthy paces all that digging beautifully, setting it in a neutral world of white walls, putty-colored computers, khakis and pale blue button-downs. The plethora of evidence must be put together just so; likewise, McCarthy and Singer had to whittle down months of research and investigation into a taut mix of interviews, research and infuriating dead ends that are only dead because the church has its fingers everywhere. 

Spotlight tells a story about a fading kind of journalism and the persistence required to uncover and vet a serious story, but in resisting the simplicity of “newspaper good, church bad,” it encompasses more than that. McCarthy’s cleverly paced film underlines the way individual error builds up to something bigger, a systemic failure and a sacrificing of people for what’s been deemed the greater good. It looks sharply at broken and flawed institutions, and it doesn’t let the paper, or anyone complicit in Boston’s silence, off the hook.

Spotlight is never maudlin or sentimental, never one-note with its characters, who are often defined by habit or posture (look at Billy Crudup’s Eric Macleish, sitting so stiffly upright, versus Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian, hunched over take-out, always working). Thoughtful, smart and eerily timely in its look at the dangers of blind loyalty, it’s easily one of the best films of the year. (Bijou Art Cinemas